A couple at a Kolkata market. Photo: Tom Pietrasik April 14th 2014 Kolkata, India (Tom Pietrasik)Posing for a portrait usually indicates consent to be photographed. A young couple out shopping on a busy weekend in Kolkata. India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

The British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) are working with The School for International Development at UEA to conduct a survey on the ethics of photographing development issues. I’d been directed to this survey by Duckrabbit who frequently discuss such issues on their blog.

If you are a photographer and/or filmmaker, please consider offering your thoughts too. It should not require too much time to answer the nine questions – though I certainly spent more than the five minutes Duckrabbit suggested it would take!

I’ve listed my lightly-edited response to the main questions in the survey below. My answers are not intended to be all-encompassing but they do summarise my thoughts, particularly on the subject of consent about which I’ve written before.

At home Vasanti (centre) and daughters Shrudha, 10 (HIV positive, in pink), Shubhada, 11 (HIV negative, foreground) and Vrinda, 8 (status not known). Vasanti Shinde, 26, works for the Save Foundation.  Like many of the women who work for and with UNDP partners the Save Foundation, Vasanti Shinde, age 26, only found out that she was HIV positive after her husband became seriously ill with an AIDS-related illness five years ago. Vasanti's husband subsequently died. Vasanti now lives with her two younger daughters Shrudha, age 10, and Vrinda, 8, in the one-room home of her brother in Sangli city. Vasanti's elder daughter, eleven year old Shubhada is being brought up by her paternal grandmother and sees her mother during holidays. Vasanti knows that Shubhada is HIV negative and Shruda is positive but anxiety over the result means that she refuses to have Vrinda tested for HIV. For a monthly income of Rs.3500, Vasanti works as a field officer and counselor for the Save Foundation. She works in the positive-people's pharmacy for no pay. Her work with the Save Foundation entitles her access to a credit union which provides low interest loans covering medical expenses. Though first-line drugs and homeopathic medicine keep Vasanti healthy, she is prone to infection and recently suffered a bout of influenza. Vasanti is completely open about her HIV status and most of her neighbours know that she is HIV positive. Vasanti says that "I used to feel like I was going to die. Now, because of the Save Foundation, I feel like I'm going to live."  Photo: Tom Pietrasik Sangli, Maharashtra. India August 28th 2008 (Tom Pietrasik)Vasanti Shinde provided me written consent to photograph her at home with her daughters. Shinde works for an HIV-positive network called the Save Foundation and is open about her HIV-positive status. Maharashtra, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

What are the ways you collect consent for ethical usage of images ? e.g. written, audio, video, other. Explain. If I am photographing a sensitive subject like HIV/AIDS I will get written consent (as with the photograph above). If I am photographing any other situation that involves me going into someone’s private space, I will ask for consent but this is almost always aural and I rarely record this consent. If people decline then of course I do not photograph them.

While it is incredibly important to respect the people you photograph I have worked extensively in India and I sometimes wonder what value a consent form has when presented to an illiterate person who has little understanding of the world beyond their village. In India (and perhaps other countries too), there is a reluctance to sign your name to anything. Many families have lost land or relinquished rights because they have signed their name on a piece of paper. In this context, the logical response to someone holding out a consent form is to ask: what do they want to take from me?

 Market traders and busy traffic during evening rush hour in Dhaka.      Photo: Tom Pietrasik Dhaka, Bangladesh November 9th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)This man knew I was photographing him. He was in a public space so I did not consider that I required more formal consent. A market trader and busy traffic during evening rush hour in Dhaka. Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

If I am in a public area, I do not seek the consent of everyone who is depicted in the photograph because this is just not practical. I look at photographs, past and present, that have real historical or cultural value. I think it unlikely that all but a very few (whether in the Developed or Developing world) were taken with explicit consent. Yet these photographs can be incredibly valuable in expressing empathy and contributing to our understanding of each other and of the past. Some of these photographs record significant historical events. Photography that is authentic and true to a subject must be encouraged when so many photographs that do involve consent (advertising, selfies etc) are concocted images of reality.

How do you capture an ethical representation of your subject to avoid issues like cultural or stereotypical misrepresentations?  When photographing, I hope to influence my subjects as little as possible. This is of course never completely achievable but by remaining an observer, reducing my input into a scene and revealing as little of my own feelings as possible, I try to capture activity as authentically as possible. For example – without being rude – I do not respond when children play to the camera. Capturing photographs of children doing what children do when there is no camera is the outcome I seek. I also think respecting the dignity of a subject is fundamental. I ask myself: would I be happy to be photographed in this way?

Sameer plays an evening game with his children Salina and Shabikur outside their home. The rag-picking community of Shanti Busti (literally "Peace Slum") which comprises 210 households have been living and working in Lucknow for the past twenty years. Originally from Assam, their language and culture differs from the wider population of Lucknow who speak Hindi. The low status of the rag-pickers' work together with their minority status as Muslims speaking Assamese makes them particularly vulnerable to stigma and discrimination. The rag-pickers also suffer insecurity of tenure over the land upon which Shanti Busti is built. Families pay a rent of INR100-150 (GB£1.25-GB£1.90) to a "landlord" who provides then some protection from eviction by the government. The community's status is further undermined by the fact that many in wider society falsely charge them with being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This effectively denies the rag-pickers claim to any of the rights and services afforded to other Indians including the right to vote. Without political representation the people of Shanti Busti rely on the work of Oxfam and its partners for the provision of basic services.  Sahera Khatoon is ten years old. She lives with her two parents and five of her six siblings in a small shack built of discarded plastic sacking and bamboo poles. Sahera's father Sameer and mother Zohra arrived from Barpeta district in Assam 21 years ago. They and their families were poor landless labourers suffering the financial insecurity that comes with irregular work. Like many of their neighbours in Barpeta district, they were encouraged to make the journey to Lucknow by a refuge contractor who promised a regular income in return for their labour. It is a measure of the desperate circumstances faced by Sameer and Zohra that their life in Shanti Busti is preferable to the circumstances they left behind in Barpeta district. Collecting rubbish is hazardous and as well as the health-risks o (Tom Pietrasik, Tom Pietrasik, To/Tom Pietrasik)Photographing people whose experience and culture is very different from my own requires sensitivity and respect. A man from the rag-picking community of Shanti Busti plays with his children after a day of work. Lucknow, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

If you are given a brief which is different to your working process or may conflict with your ethical practices; how would you handle this? I would make my feelings known. I like to think people assign me because of my approach and the experience I can bring to a project and will therefor respect my opinion when planning for an assignment. There are times when I have photographed events which I’m not entirely comfortable with. For example a British celebrity in the home of a bewildered rural Indian family. I certainly would not want to photograph these situations every day (and do so rarely) but I do not consider this sufficient a conflict in my mind to warrant me declining the work.

Permission to make this video on post-conflict resolution in Uganda for Christian Aid required the payment of a fee to the head of the village in which I filmed.

Do you think people should be paid for being photographed? (e.g. cash, food, transport, given copies of photos). Consider your answer in relation to context and cultural norms. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and please explain why. I would say no but if someone has taken a day off work to be photographed then I would compensate them for their time. I almost never pay people for being photographed or filmed. I worked in Uganda recently and the only way to film people in a particular village (see video above) was to pay the head of the village. But paying almost always influences the relationship between a photographer and a subject. Subjects are more likely to perform for the camera. They might walk to into a public street and be photographed alongside a dozen others who may also want to be paid and resent it when they are not. It is much better to arrange for copies of photos to be given as compensation.

Anoopi (with paler green paisley-design sari) And others from the Saharia community challenge a Public Distribution System (PDS or government ration system) employee (on bike) about the failure to supply forty Sahariya people a ration card renewal...Anoopi from Gopalapura's Sahariya community in Shivpuri District, has no real household. She works a domestic servant for six Sikh families for which she receives Rs.20 (£0.25) from each per month. Anoopi also collects medicinal leaves and bark from the forest which is sold on to a broker. She is not aware of how much her labour is worth to the brokers but she earns about Rs.5-10 per bundle of leaves she collects...Sahariya are an indiginous tribe who traditionally lived in and off the forest. Residing in the north Indian states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and parts of Madhya Pradesh (MP) including Shivpuri District, they have never been granted proper land-owning rights. As a result they have endured a fragile existence, working as agricultural day-wage labourers they have been unable to plan for the future or save for hard times. The community suffer from malnutrition, low levels of literacy and under-representation in the administration and government. The Indian Forest Ministry accuse the Sahariya of trespassing government land and many Sahariya have been forced to migrate in search of jobs. Recent migrants to Shivpuri District in MP, including the Sikh and higher caste Gujjar community, have been more adept at claiming land rights, often at the expense of the Sahariya. Since the mid-1990s however the Sahariya have been granted the lease of land from the government allowing them to sow crops including wheat, chick-peas and soya beans both for the market and their own needs. Over this period, the Sahariya have become more organised and confident at confronting local prejudice and official indifference to their plight. Drought and poor harvests between 2000 and 2004 set the community back but since then they have (Tom Pietrasik)The public-interest should take precedence if objections are raised to a photograph being taken. Residents of the low-caste Saharia community challenge a government employee about his failure to supply them ration cards. Madhya Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

What advice would you give to an inexperienced photographer about collecting consent? Make sure people understand why you are photographing them. If they raise an objection, walk away. It is wrong to photograph in such a situation (unless in the public interest: for example a public official failing to fulfil their duty as in the photograph above) and you rarely end up with decent photographs anyway. 


CNN International just interviewed me about my experience of photographing in India as part of their series Parting Shots. Its a short segment in which I discuss the privilege of working in India over the past fifteen years and my thoughts on issues around the recent national election.

CNN have also recently profiled the work of photographers Arash Khamooshi and Steve McCurry as part of this series.


If harbouring a secret ever caused Bharathi Kannamma to feel a sense of shame, she certainly shows no sign of it today. Living as a man until ten years ago, Kannamma is now a transgender woman. Until the age of 43, she kept her feminine feelings to herself. It was only when her mother died in 2004 that Kannamma came out, began to dress as a woman and lived openly as a transgender person.

Bharathi Kannamma, Independent candidate for Madurai in Indian Election 2014. Photo: Tom Pietrasik April 2014 Madurai, India (Tom Pietrasik)Bharathi Kannamma launches her campaign for election among the morning traffic in a suburb of Madurai. Madurai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Determined, self-effacing and confident, she is now touring Madurai, campaigning as an independent candidate in the Indian national election for which voting is currently underway. At the beginning of April, I spent a few days filming Kannamma and her small entourage of supporters in south India for the Guardian newspaper.

Bharathi Kannamma, Independent candidate for Madurai in Indian Election 2014. Photo: Tom Pietrasik April 2014 Madurai, India (Tom Pietrasik)My interview with Bharathi Kannamma. Madurai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

As Kannamma tells an policeman in the film, she is not standing on a platform narrowly defined by the interests of transgender people but is appealing to all, most particularly the poor. And it was in the less-salubrious neighbourhoods of Madurai that I saw the greatest affinity between Kannamma and the electorate – especially poor women. Having suffered herself, Kannamma’s appeal to this community felt genuine. She spoke to them without condescension, delivering her message in a blunt style that would have felt false had it been uttered by one of her mainstream rivals,

“If we don’t have water to clean our arse, whats the point of living?”

Bharathi Kannamma, Independent candidate for Madurai in Indian Election 2014. Photo: Tom Pietrasik April 2014 Madurai, India (Tom Pietrasik)Kannamma visits neighbourhoods in the early morning and late evening – times when she is most likely to attract the ears of the electorate. Madurai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Though there are many obstacles ahead, this is an exciting time for India’s LGBT community.  The 2014 election is the first in which both voters and candidates can define themselves as transgender. And only last week the Supreme Court ruled that third gender people have the same rights as men and women. Penal code 377 which criminalises gay sex is still very much in place but this draconian law continues to be debated in the courts and there is an increasing sense that it will soon be dispensed with – over 150 years after the British introduced it.

Bharathi Kannamma, Independent candidate for Madurai in Indian Election 2014. Photo: Tom Pietrasik April 2014 Madurai, India (Tom Pietrasik)Kannamma discusses her election pledges with the press on a busy market street in central Madurai. Madurai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

In Kannamma’s home state of Tamil Nadu, where transgender people are known as aravanis, there have been further gains. In 2009, the state government began providing sex-change surgery free of cost. Tamil Nadu also provides special third gender ration cards, passports and reserved seats in colleges. And 2008 saw the launch of Ippudikku Rose, a Tamil talk-show fronted by India’s first transgender TV-host.

As I have written about on other occasions here and here, none of these gains have been bestowed upon the community. They are the result of a long and ongoing struggle by ordinary Indian LGBT people including Bharati Kannamma.

Madurai votes on April 24th and counting takes place on May 16th.


A band plays music at a DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) pre-election rally in Chennai at which leader  M.K. Stalin spoke.  Photo: Tom Pietrasik April 6th 2014 Chennai, India (Tom Pietrasik)A drummer and his band play at a political rally ahead of the 2014 Indian election. Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Voters in Tamil Nadu state don’t go to the polls until April 24th but while in Chennai yesterday I came across a political rally for the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party. There was a festive atmosphere with flags, fireworks and very loud music by this drummer and his band. The 2014 Indian election is an incredible undertaking with 717 million registered voters, 533 constituencies, 8,070 candidates and 370 political parties.


Still from Tom Pietrasik film from Uganda In Kony's Shadow: Norman Okello's Story. 2013 (Tom Pietrasik)A still from my short film about former LRA soldier Norman Okello from Uganda.

Yesterday saw the launch of Christian Aid’s “In Kony’s Shadow”, a multimedia exhibition at London’s Oxo Tower that examines the legacy of the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda that ended in 2007. The exhibition, which runs until March 16th, features photographs by Will Storr and two of my short films about which I have written before.

Together with Will and Christian Aid’s Chief Executive Loretta Minghella, I spoke at last night’s private viewing at the Oxo Tower. So I’m posting a version of that speech here, outlining my enthusiasm for online video stories and my approach when making the film on former LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) child-soldier Norman Okello below.

… the fundamentals of good storytelling are still the same as they always have been.

With the public’s growing appetite for short online videos, there are new opportunities for development agencies like Christian Aid to engage people with big issues. Some of these videos go viral and have the potential to inspire change by examining areas of concern and provoking debate. Added to this altered landscape are new technologies that see quality filmmaking cameras getting smaller and cheaper. Video journalists like myself can now work independently without the need of a large crew, taking cameras into often demanding or sensitive environments to bring stories to public attention via the internet.

Such technological innovations are to be welcomed but the fundamentals of good storytelling are still the same as they always have been. So when Christian Aid approached me with the idea of making a short film about Norman Okello, a former child soldier with the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), I concerned myself less with the equipment that I would use than with research and the challenges of telling a story about someone I had never met and whose background was so very different from my own. Overcoming these differences was key, requiring both sensitivity and time. I knew that I had to build a trust with Norman so that he would feel comfortable expressing his emotions on camera. By revealing his feelings, I hoped Norman would arouse empathy in an audience and so engage them in an issue that might otherwise be considered distant or obscure.

 (Tom Pietrasik)I wanted Norman Okello feel comfortable so I chose to interview him in a secluded woodland close to his family home. 

Working with Christian Aid’s Emma Wigley, I interviewed Norman for about five hours over several sessions interspersed among our shooting-schedule. I decided to conduct the interviews beneath a small collection of trees beside Norman’s childhood home. I wanted Norman to avoid any sense of inhibition so we made sure he was out of earshot of his family, but close enough to them to feel comfortable and secure.

Over time Norman’s reservations subsided and he revealed details of his traumatic childhood and expressed the frustration of reconciling his past life with the present. He explained his desire to be a productive member of society and to realise his potential as a dutiful son, a loving husband and a responsible father.

Still from Tom Pietrasik film from Uganda In Kony's Shadow: Norman Okello's Story. 2013 (Tom Pietrasik)Norman enjoys time with friends in the town of Kitgum, Uganda, close to his family home.

Norman’s candour is unusual in post-conflict Uganda. It is uncommon to find people discussing their own anxieties, particularly with strangers. Most are either too busy struggling to provide for the basic needs of their family or they are uneasy expressing opinions about a recent conflict that has left many scars.

It is impossible for a film of less than eight minutes to digest a complex issue like the northern Ugandan conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda. But by focussing on one individual, I hope that audiences come away from this film appreciating that conflicts in apparently distant lands involve ordinary people like Norman. It is far more difficult to dismiss events in other parts of the world as irrelevant to our own lives if we identify with individuals and relate our own circumstances to theirs.

Still from Tom Pietrasik film from Uganda In Kony's Shadow: Norman Okello's Story. 2013 (Tom Pietrasik)Storm clouds gather in northern Uganda. Another still from my film about Norman Okello.

Making an engaging film is of course only half the battle. It is vital that such films actually get seen. Christian Aid’s communication and media teams have worked hard to distribute this film about Norman Okello along with my accompanying profile of Deo Komakech. Between them, these two short films have appeared on British newspaper websites including The Guardian, The Telegraph, Sky News and The Independent.

Photographer & Filmmaker Tom Pietrasik (Torcuil Crichton)Me at the launch of the “In Kony’s Shadow” exhibition at the Oxo Tower. Photo by Torcuil Crichton.